Inequality–now and then

What Is

Income inequality has been a big topic in public discussion for the past few years—and understandably so. Inequality in the United States continues to increase. I have even written about this in past years during my days as a parish minister and a denominational official. The effects of inequality are perverse, creating twisted relationships, exploitation, and threatening the foundation of democratic socieity.

What are the deep sources of such inequality? Some argue that growing inequality is inherent in capitalism, that capitalism is a system that over time leads to greater concentration of wealth. There is certainly a lot of modern data to support this. And, of course, it is an argument that Karl Marx made 170 years ago. 

But what if we look at the great scope of human history? What if we look back over the centuries and across the planet? I think a pretty obvious pattern jumps out: inequality is inherent in all civilization. If we go back centuries and look at ancient Rome, the empires of the Inca, Aztecs and Maya in the western hemisphere, China, Japan, Greece and others we see the same thing. We see a few people amassing great wealth and the subjugation of the vast majority. 

In order to find cultures where there is relative equality we really need to go all the way back to hunting and gathering cultures. Alas, there was little inequality mostly because no one had much of anything. Inequality comes to human history with agriculture and the organization required to maintain an agricultural economy. With organization comes hierarchy. With agriculture comes, for the first time, surplus production. Guess who gets most of the surplus? It goes, of course, to those with more power in the hierarchical structure. This is the pattern that repeats itself century after century in every part of the world. 

With the advent of industrialization the economy was radically transformed, with fewer and fewer people involved in producing food and more and more people concentrated in cities. However, hierarchy endured. Power was shifted from control of land to control of production and control of money, but inequality of power and income (money is a form of power, after all) remained. 

In the last century we have seen the emergence of communist socieities. However, look at what happened in Russia and China. While the ideology was one of equality, the reality was a concentration of power and privilege. Not only that, but centrally planned economies proved to be terribly inefficient and brutal. 

There are simply no examples in human history of agricultural or industrial societies that do not have tremendous levels of inequality. Even where the system appears to work best (I would think northern Europe probably does best), inequality is increasing. 

And yet. All this inequality exists despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of people do not want this level of inequality and, just as important, most people do not believe that such concentration of wealth is just. 

So What?

If inequality arises “naturally” from the organization of civilization and if the vast majority of us do not want the level of inequality we see in the world, what are we to do? (By the way, I find it fascinating that people do not mind some level of inequality.) 

First, the ideal of complete equality that pops up in communist and anarchist philosophy is a fantasy. I think most thoughtful people realize this. 

Second, to bring the level of inequality down to a point that most people believe is fair is going to take a huge change in our culture, in our politics and in our economy. And it is going to take constant vigilance and tweaking, for the tendency to concentrate power and wealth is baked into the complex organization that is the necessary for a modern society. Actually, some level of hierarchy is necessary for any society beyond the most basic. 

This isn’t going to be easy. As a good friend humorously remarks when facing a daunting challenge, “This could take weeks!”. 

STEM—the pipeline and the culture

What Is

In my last entry (“STEM grows like a weed”) I explored the rapid growth of college majors in science and math and mentioned the relatively low number of women and students of color. I focused on physics, because it is usually thought of as the “hardest” of the hard sciences and because, candidly, it was my physicist son who made me aware of the recent growth in physics majors.

However, this is also a cautionary tale about how atttempts to increase enrollments of women and minorities can easily miss what is going on. Let me tell a story that illustrates how good people can waste their efforts. 

Some years back Swarthmore College, one of the top liberal arts schools in the country, was troubled by the lack of minority students majoring in math. They had not had a minority student major in math in recent memory. Being a progressive school that has tried to nurture diversity, they found this embarrassing. They decided to create special sections of the introductory calculus course aimed at students of color. These sections were smaller and involved more discussion and interaction with the faculty member. The hope was that this personal engagement would attract minority majores. Alas, it had no effect.

The topic of lack of “minority” majors came up at yet another department faculty meeting. It is a small college, so the math department had just a handful of faculty. One member of the faculty was on leave, so they had a visiting professor that year (so often an outsider can see things others miss). The visiting professor was interested in the problem and offered to take a look at the records of the math majors over the previous decade to see if any pattern emerged. 

OK, here comes the punch line. At the next meeting the visiting professor reported that (drumroll here) not a single math major in the last ten years had taken introductory calculus. The fact was that all math majors had entered the college having taken calculus in high school (and probably at excellent public high schools and private prep schools). If you were a minority student from a poor high school that did not offer calculus, you were already far behind. 

On a personal level, my son attended a small rural high school in Oregon that did not offer calculus (and who had coaches teaching some of the science courses). When he decided to major in physics in college, he found he was behind. 

Today the number of physics majors in the U. S. who are women in less than one in four. The total number of women has been growing, although the number of men has grown faster in the last few years. 

The efforts of Swarthmore’s math department to attract more minority students was well intentioned, but it had no effect. I suspect that similar efforts in math and science departments across the country meet a similar fate. The problem is that it is too late. The same thing goes for trying to get more women and minority faculty in STEM departments. The problem is not so much prejudice as it is a lack of candidates. The problem is not so much the institution as it is the culture.

So What?

If we want to open STEM fields, or any field, to women and minorities, we have to focus on the pipeline. The real problem in STEM has its origins at home, in elementary school, in middle school and in high school. 

Progressives have a tendency to believe that problems of inclusion can be solved with institutional interventions. Maybe a few can, but most problems are just too deep. Pressuring the physics department at a major university to be more diverse will have little effect. Even working to attract more women and people of color at universities will have little effect. We have to change expectations and aspirations of girls and kids of color. We have to change the quality of teaching of math and science in public schools. 

STEM grows like a weed

What Is

I was chatting with my son Miguel, a physics professor, recently and asked about his current work. He mentioned that his department (at the University of Washington main campus in Seattle) is struggling to deal with the increase in enrollment in physics classes. When I asked how much it had grown, he said that the number of physics majors had tripled in the last decade. Right now the number of students taking physics courses is limited by space in lecture halls and labs. I was stunned. It got me to wondering if this was true nationwide. 

At first I thought this might be a special situation in Washington, since among the companies here include Boeing, Amazon, Micosoft, Twitter, Snapchat and Dropbox. And it turns out that the University of Washington (“U Dub” if you live in Pacific Northwest) now graduates more physics majors than any university in the country. In 2017, the most recent data I could find, UW graduated 141 physics majors. (Don’t these young people understand that physics is really hard?) 

It turns out that, although UW is a bit of an outlier, physics enrollements have been growing nationally. Take a look at the chart below:

STEM, in case you are not familiar with the term, is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Physics, along with math, lies at the core of STEM. For example, engineers in all sorts engineering fields need both math and physics. So on top of the explosion in physics majors, the physics department is trying to teach introductory courses needed for other majors. 

STEM majors have been growing overall, but not as rapidly. In 2000, the number of undergraduates planning to major in a STEM field was about a third. By 2016 that had risen to 45 percent (according to the National Science Board).

Among the data that leaps off the chart above is the small number of women in physics. This is especially interesting given that the majority of undergraduate students are women. That, along with minority student enrollment in the sciences, is a topic for another blog. So, too, is the stunning contrast between this surge in science in higher education and the appalling ignorance of basic science among the general public. 

So What?

I imagine that if I were a high school graduate heading off to college, I would be considering a science major. Not only are the job prospects excellent, but there is a lot of exciting stuff happening. While I would argue that the greatest challenges facing humanity are cultural rather than technical, there are fascinating developments in all areas of science. We live in a golden age of science. 

The renewed interest in science does not trouble me. What does trouble me is the related decline in interest in the humanities and the social sciences. What will this mean in a generation or two? 

Take, for example, the pressing urgency of global warming and climate change. Right now the greatest barriers to saving our planet from catastrophic are not technical. We have enough technology right now. The great barriers are cultural and political. 

How far, how big, how fast, how many?

What Is

What can we measure, and what can we not measure? The answers have important implications. 

This may seem like a blinding flash of the obvious, but it dawned upon me a while back that science is about what we can measure. That may put me in the finals for some kind of slow learning award, but I had never thought about it in quite that way. I had always thought of science as this marvelous story of heroic discovery—Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Pauling, Hawking, etc. I thought of the development of science as the story of big ideas about motion, mass, light, gravity and so forth. 

So here is a little thought experiment. If Einstein had proposed his theories of special and general relativity five hundred years ago, he would have been wrong by all the standards of scientific knowledge. Not ahead of his time, but wrong. Why wrong? His ideas would have been dismissed because there was nothing for them to explain. None of the things that Einstein talked about (the speed of light and tiny changes in the passage of time, for example) could be measured. Actually, he could not have come up with his theories because he would not have been able to do the math. Calculus had not been invented. His theories were literally unthinkable

When you think about it, the improvements in our ability to measure stuff is stunning. We humans can now measure the difference in weight of the same brick held above your head or at your feet. It is measurably heavier at your feet because it is closer to the center of the earth. We can measure distances down to septillionth of a meter. Time, well, space-time really, is measured by how long it takes light to cross the tiniest distance. This is way, way beyond splitting hairs. It is mind boggling. 

And you can’t find neutrinos or gravitational waves or even make the gps on your smart phone work without this ability to measure precisely.

But what about things that do not lend themselves to measurement? Think of two musicians playing the same piece of music. Both play it note perfect. One performance leaves us cold and unaffected, the other moves us profoundly. What is the difference? The music is not the notes. We can measure whether the correct notes were played. Measuring the quality of the performance is elusive—and yet we instantly sense the difference between good and dull playing.

I have one more quick example that comes from my long standing interest in listening to music on “hi fi” equipment. We can measure the harmonic distortion of two amplifiers. However, the distortion measurement tells us very little about how it sounds. Often an amplifier with higher measured distortion sounds obviously better than another with lower measured distortion. It is easy to measure the wrong thing, or to measure one aspect of something and delude ourselves into thinking we have measured the whole thing. The experience of listening to music is complex. The harmonic distortion of an amplifier is only a small part of it.

So What?

Measurement is important, and not just for scientists. Think of how we rely upon blood tests, x-rays and MRIs. Advances in measurement have opened new worlds. Not long ago we had no way of knowing about the infrared, the ultraviolet, radio waves, microbes and galaxies. 

And yet there is a perverse quality to measurement. Think of how IQ test results have been misused. Consider pseudo scientific measures of phrenology (measuring bumps on a skull). It is easy to fall in love with what we can measure and to think that what we can measure defines what is real. 

Many of the things that give life meaning defy measurement: beauty, love, peace, joy. 

Sometimes the right measurement is the digital readout on a sophisticated instrument. Sometimes the right measurement is how something makes you feel. 

Science is about what is, not about so what.

Agnosticism, atheism and belief

What Is

Theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser recently won the Templeton Prize, an award given to “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Gleiser, an agnostic, has argued that atheism is not compatible with a scientific perspective. Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/2019/03/19/704419486/marcelo-gleiser-wins-templeton-prize-for-quest-to-confront-mystery-of-who-we-are

The tension between religion and science is as old as, well, modern science. The battle between conservative, orthodox religion and science extends from Galileo all the way to today’s efforts to deny everything from evolution to climate change. 

Scientists, perhaps to no one’s suprise, are far less likely than the average person to “believe in God.” In a survey done by the Pew Research Center ten years ago, 83 percent of the general public said they believe in God, while 33 percent of scientists did. Leading scientists, like members of the American Academy of Science, are even less likely to believe in God. 

As always, so much depends on how a question is asked. While a third of scientists in the survey say they believe in God, only seven percent believe in some sort of afterlife or in a “personal god.” Only four percent of scientists in the survey were evagelical Protestants, while 28 percent of the general population were.

I have long thought that a person’s answer to the question about belief in God doesn’t tell us much. This is particularly true of more educated people. The God that answers prayers, works miracles, smites our enemies and condemns people to eternal hell bears no resemblance to the God of process theology. The god of the modern philosophical theologians doesn’t really do anything. The line between the god of liberal theology and agnosticism is pretty fuzzy. 

So what does it actually mean to “believe” in God? We tend to be very sloppy about how we use the term “believe.” On the one hand, it means agreement with a factual proposition. If I say “I believe yesterday’s high temperature was 58 degrees,” I am talking about one kind of belief. That belief has no real emotional weight, nor does it shape my conduct. That is very different from a traditional belief in God, a belief that has huge implications for my life. There is a kind of belief that is an affirmation, that comes from believing as giving one’s heart. This kind of religious belief is a relationship and has real consequences.

So What?

So what, indeed. What difference does “belief” make? When we ask the question like this, a very different picture emerges. The big divide in our world is not between those who believe in God and those who do not, but between fundamentalists on the one hand and everyone else. There is essentially no difference between those who believe in a god who does not interfere in the world and those who do not believe in such a god. The behavioral difference between a liberal believer and an agnostic or even atheist is close to zero. 

Having heard more theological discussion than one person should have to endure in a lifetime, I would suggest that the question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question. It is the wrong question because the answer tells us very little. The real question is “What do you give your heart to?”. It is a question of what we love and what commitments we make. That is what shapes our lives. 

Human nature and progressive naiveté

What Is

In my mercifully brief football career I threw one really good block. I played a couple of years in middle school and never could develop a taste for being clobbered by guys bigger and stronger. And since a majority of the other boys were both bigger and stronger, it didn’t take much sophistiction to figure out the math on risk and reward. 

But, as I said, I did throw one really good block. It was on a kickoff. The other team was kicking to us. As the opposing team came running down the field at full speed, a boy came near me but looked past me toward the ball carrier. I nailed him. I drove my shoulder into his midsection and lifted him off the ground. He fell hard on his back and began making a horrible moaning sound. He was gasping for air. I stood over him and (I am ashamed to say) was filled with the rush of satisfaction of a warrior slaying a hated foe who was attacking my homeland. 

The object of my block had simply had the wind knocked out of him. In a matter of seconds he got air in his lungs, got up, and was fine. After the game I thought about the incident. I was surprised and unsettled by the animal pleasure I had felt in leveling that kid. 

It turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had briefly tapped into something deep in myself and, it turns out, deep in our species. 

We peace loving progressives (I assume that includes you or you wouldn’t be reading this) like to see the good in people. We assume people are inherently good, loving and generous. 

The facts, sadly, tell a different story. Despite all the wars and genocide of the last century, war related deaths in the 20th century (think of the millions killed in the horrors of two world wars) were, on the basis of a percentage of population, only about one tenth the death rates from war in hunting and gathering societies. One tenth. We are all the descendants of killers. 

Violence and killing come naturally and all too easily to us. That is just physical violence. Human history is full of evidence of greed, lying, and a list of other behavior we call immoral. Of course, love, generosity and heroism are also part of the record. Both are true.  

So What?

We progressives always seem surprised by evil. That’s true of the evil on a massive scale as well as the pettier acts of evil among people we know. I think on the whole progressive, liberal people are naive. 

Alas, our naiveté has consequences. At a personal level, we are too willing to trust people who are not worthy of our trust. We leave ourselves open to being used. Liberal congregations of all faiths or denominations are a good example. They are easy targets for sociopaths and narcissists.  

On a larger scale, think of how progressives have been too naive about the emerging dangers dangers of authoritarianism. I think of Germany during the rise of Hitler or Spain before the Spanish Civil War. Think of all the progressives that were blind to the brutality of communism in Russia. And just look at our surprise for the level of support for our autocratic president. I hate to admit that it surprises me.

Of course, the opposite of being naive is no better. Seeing the world as a war of each against all ignores the human capacity for love, compassion and cooperation. It isn’t any easy balance. 

The universe is very, very dark

What Is

Most of the our universe has gone missing! The sky, it turns out, is not falling. It’s worse. 

It was bad enough when I learned, some decades ago, that I was just another variety of ape. I mostly got over that. It wasn’t so bad to learn that our sun is just another star (that was kind of neat, actually). However, the idea that our galaxy, the Milky Way, has something like 100 to 400 billion stars (turns out it is really hard to count stars in our galaxy) is a bit mind boggling. Just a bit. And then we learned that there are at least 100 billion galaxies. Ok, ok, I get it. In the “great scheme of things” I am kinda small. 

But now this. Now they tell us that all the stuff we see—you, me, the stuff in the pantry and all the things in the garage and all of the earth and all of the whole darned Milky Way and the bazillions of stars in other galaxies—is only a small part of the universe. 

Every speck is a galaxy. There are billions of them.

Matter, all of it, apparently accounts for only five percent of the universe. Not only do I not matter (neither do you), but matter doesn’t matter. What physicists call “dark matter” accounts for 27 percent of the universe. What accounts for the other 68 percent? Dark energy. I am not making this up.

What is dark matter? And what is dark energy? We don’t know. Astrophysicists can measure the gravitational effects of dark matter. If it weren’t for dark matter galaxies would fly apart. And dark energy, which is two thirds of the whole bloody universe, is forcing the whole cosmos to expand at an accelerating rate. It’s everywhere. 

So matter doesn’t matter. And darkness rules. 

So What?

On the one hand, science has made and continues to make stunning advances. 

On the other hand, what we do not understand is huge. Heck, our ignorance is positively cosmic. The universe that our senses can perceive is a tiny sliver of what is out there. 

When I think of all the people in the world who are sure that we are the center of creation and that they have the answers I just shake my head. Ignorance produces arrogance. 

Maybe a bit of humility is in order. Perhaps we should stick together. It’s dark out there.